Keeping the faith

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Christian pupils meet the imam at the mosque and Muslim children meet the vicar, all in the name of racial harmony

Impassioned voices struggle to make themselves heard at Spring Grove school as a debate about the importance of RE gets into full flow. "Children have to learn about all faiths," says one above the rest. "Racism is disrespectful to other religions and we need to stop that."

This is not a staff or governors' meeting. The voice belongs to 10-year-old Tajinder Singh. Along with a roomful of his classmates, they all comfortably and confidently discuss the need for greater religious understanding.

The impressive pupils are the product of a junior, infant and nursery school in Huddersfield that is leading the way in promoting "community cohesion".

The Government believes that better links between disparate ethnic groups are the key to relieving religious tensions and it is looking to this small inner-city school to set an example.

Home Office officials have already expressed their interest in what the school is doing to promote better relationships between its Muslim majority pupils and white children in other areas. Now the Department for Communities and Local Government, led by former education secretary Ruth Kelly, which is looking at ways to tackle extremism, is considering using the school as a model for others to follow.

But Bibi Laher, the school's headteacher, is taking it all in her stride.

"I can't understand why more schools aren't doing what we're doing," she says. "It is just simple good practice."

Ms Kelly's department is especially interested in the school's twinning scheme. Spring Grove, where 70 per cent of the pupils are of Pakistani descent, first started twinning with a predominantly white school four years ago.

Children in Years 1 to 5 at the school pay regular visits to rural Netherthong primary in Holmfirth. In another scheme, Y4 children spent one day a week of the spring term either visiting or hosting another school with a different ethnic mix.

The idea is for pupils to make friends and be introduced to different cultures. When visiting Netherthong, all the children go to the local church and meet the vicar. On the return trip, they all go to the local mosque and speak to the imam.

"There was some prejudice to start with, but the scheme has been very successful in ironing it out," says Mrs Laher. "For many pupils this can be the first positive experience of meeting someone from a different culture.

They realise that they have different names and religions, but the same core values."

Ofsted inspectors recently heaped praise on the school for its work, not only with twinning, but in incorporating multiculturalism in all areas of the school.

The timetable features regular theme weeks in which pupils study festivals, art and history from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. There is also a programme of events with parents, including English lessons, to help them engage better with the school and children's education.

Mrs Laher, who has been at the school for 10 years and became its head in 2003, makes her priorities very clear for staff and pupils, but admits there has been occasional resistance from parents.

"I'm very upfront," she says. "I tell parents I believe all children should learn about everyone's religion. It could land me in trouble, but I say to parents that if they don't believe in that philosophy, perhaps they should consider taking their children elsewhere."

Children start the school with lower than average levels of attainment and often with limited spoken English. By Year 6, overall standards are above national averages and the achievement of all children is excellent, says Ofsted.

Mrs Laher says: "The wider experience can only enhance children's knowledge, but you need courage to take that step."

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